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Must We Be Correct and Appropriate?
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Do you remember being 19? I do. The last thing I wanted to be was correct—or (in most circumstances) appropriate. I wanted to be … independent! Creative! Envied! I did want to write well, and I understood that doing so involved correct grammar and the use of appropriate language. I just didn’t like to think of it that way.
Lately I’ve been wondering what a better way to think of it might be. What are we really asking students to do when we tell them to write correctly and appropriately? We’re asking them to conform to standards of language and conventions of genre and discipline. Unfortunately, conformity is another thing that young people may not be interested in working hard to achieve. “Why are we supposed to do X?,” they’ll want to know.
These are much the same issues as come up when someone is learning a sport. The coach will say, “Hold the bat/club/racket like this,” and the learner will be more inclined to remember and follow through if the coach offers a reason, such as “It will give you a stronger swing.” Saying only “This is the correct way to do it” is not only less helpful but also less persuasive.
With sports, people learn many of the rules and the reasons for them by, over time, watching, asking questions, and playing. With writing, we learn by reading, asking questions, and writing. Some reasons are obvious; just seeing the rule broken shows what its purpose is. The reason not to write run-on sentences, for instance, becomes clear if you have to struggle through a few run-ons that someone else wrote. Or consider repeats. In my work as an editor, I mark phrases like “The supervisor is responsible for supervising …” or “Currently, the currents in the Atlantic Ocean …” and suggest changes. Authors do ask me why I’ve suggested certain changes, but none has ever asked me about these. Evidently they realize what’s wrong without asking.
Other reasons can be hard to figure out. For instance, why do we look down on the passive voice in most fields and genres but consider it standard when writing in scientific disciplines? If the active voice is stronger and more forceful in journalism or a memoir, why isn’t it more forceful when describing a scientific experiment? It’s because, in science, who performed the experiment is generally beside the point. A sentence like “Jamie Gonzales placed the mice into the maze” puts the focus on the wrong thing; “The mice were placed into the maze” is what readers need to know; who did the placing doesn’t really matter. Ideally, experiments will be replicable—anyone might follow the same procedure and achieve the same results. To that extent, the passive-voice convention makes sense.
Not even expert writers always know the reasons underlying some of the writing standards and conventions they observe. Often, to begin to understand a convention, we need to critically read examples of its being observed or not, and we need to consider how the convention evolved over time. It would be an interesting assignment to have students read passages in various genres, possibly all on the same subject—say, an abstract from a scientific journal, a newspaper article about the same study, and an editorial discussing its implications—and discuss the differences they perceive. How do the purpose and audience of each genre influence the conventions used within?
When the reason for a writing standard or convention is opaque, we may have to ask students to take it on trust that there is a reason. That trust will be easier for them to come by if we explain as many reasons as we can for other standards and conventions, rather than simply telling them what’s correct.
Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff @mac.com.
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.
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